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LA STAMPA

Why Flood Gates Alone Won't Save Venice

The venerable old city needs to embrace innovation and stop putting all of its eggs in the tourism basket, writes Italian-born architect and MIT professor Carlo Ratti.

Walking in flooded St. Mark's Square on Nov. 17
Walking in flooded St. Mark's Square on Nov. 17
Carlo Ratti*

-OpEd-

What strikes us most about the flooding of Venice in recent days? Probably the images of St. Mark's Basilica inundated for the second time in less than 400 days, and knowing that the four previous times it was flooded took place over a span of 1,200 years.

In the coming decades, even modest climatological changes could be fatal to the city known as "La Serenissima," with its fragile network of streets, fields and buildings at the water's edge.

This is why so many people are now contemplating the possibility of an apocalyptic scenario, and asking how much can be done to avoid one. Some are even invoking the possible "death of Venice." But I believe there is something else that should alarm people more: the death of Venetians.

It's not a question of numbers — cities have never been mere material products. To revive the urbs, the physical city, with its walls and its streets, the civitas must exist — a society of active citizens ready to participate. And today the Venetian civitas is practically dead.

Some are even invoking the possible "death of Venice."

There are many factors that contributed to this result, starting with poor choices the city made in the 1980s that channeled money away from universities and innovation, things that today could have become engines of development and drivers of excellence. Instead Venice took the easy route by focusing just on tourism revenue.

The civic emptying of Venice and the hemorrhaging of residents from the downtown area have deprived the city of a natural check that once kept the territory and environment under control. It has shut the city into a feedback loop of whining inaction, as we were reminded by the politicians' declarations in recent days (what a difference from the spirit of those who in previous centuries raised "La Serenissima" to great heights!).

In short, I think this is the moment to think about how to react. And doing so requires more than simply repairing MOSES, the system of hydraulic dams. More than embarking on another pharaonic construction project, what we need are extreme and courageous gestures.

Life goes on in spite of the high water emergency — Photo: Sergio Agazzi/IPA via ZUMA Press

The story of Venice these last few decades (leaving aside a few enlightened leaders) has been that of a dramatic tragedy. The first possible response, then, should be to withdraw the City of the Lagoon from Italian jurisdiction.

This isn't about restoring the short-lived Republic of San Marco (1848-1849), as some nostalgic secessionists would like. But Venice should become a new city, managed under international jurisdiction. It should be an open city, where anyone can arrive and quickly obtain the full rights of a citizen, as long as his or her state of mind is not that of a responsibility-deprived tourist.

To reconstruct the true civitas, Venice just needs to open up to the world, summoning with a rallying cry all who have concrete projects and ideas: innovators with business ideas (and the funds to implement them); students ready to spend a few years in the lagoon to restore its magnificent palazzos; engineers capable of finding new ways to handle climate change (the problems of the lagoon today could be those of New York tomorrow).

It will take more than simply declaring Venice an "open city" to reverse this long-running decline.

What's needed, in other words, is anyone willing to engage themselves and contribute to rebuilding the glorious but now decrepit Venetian civitas. Venice would then become a land of experimentation for a never-before-seen urban model: a place in which to test a bold new "citizenship pact" suited to the contemporary world's "space of flux."

Such a solution may seem fantastical, but it is not without precedent. When Venice was decimated by the Plague in the mid-14th century and lost 60% of its native population, it decided to open itself up to foreigners, accepting not only immigrants but offering Venetian citizenship to those who planned to stay long-term.

This type of citizenship was based on the will of non-Venetians to absorb "Venetianness," including the desire to work. There's no reason why such a method shouldn't work today, as the city is confronted with the contemporary plague of tourism, which is slower, perhaps, in its level of contagion, but more ravaging in its effects. Indeed, from the 1950s to today the population of Venice has dropped by about 70%.

To be sure, it will take more than simply declaring Venice an "open city" to reverse this long-running decline. Important physical and infrastructural interventions need to take place, and to be carried out without stumbling blocks. But by the same token, we can't delude ourselves in thinking that a single engineering project can repair all the damage done by decades of progressive emptying out of the city of its residents — and, as a consequence, its soul.

It doesn't make sense to work on the urbs if we negate the importance of the civitas. To save Venice, we have to save the Venetians — above all from themselves.​

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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

The Dead And Disappeared: A Village Emerges From 72 Days Of Russian Occupation

Russian forces have been pushed out of the area around Kharkiv. Villages that were occupied for two months are free once more — but utterly destroyed. And thousands of people have disappeared without a trace.

Kharkiv and the surrounding villages faced weeks of constant Russian shelling.

Alfred Hackensberger

TSYKRUNY — Andriy Kluchikov uses a walking stick, but is otherwise fairly sprightly for a 94-year-old. Under his black wool hat, Kluchikov seems fearless as he surveys his hometown in northeastern Ukraine. “The missiles don't scare me,” he says with a smile. “I have slept in my own bed every night and never went down into the basement.”

As for the two-meter-wide bomb crater that has appeared in his garden, between the vegetable patch and the greenhouse with its shattered plastic roof, Kluchikov almost seems proud. “No one can intimidate me,” he says. “Not even the Russians.”

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In the early days of the war, in February, Russian artillery almost completely destroyed this village of Tsyrkuny, near Kharkiv, Ukraine's second largest city. Only a few houses, including his own, were left undamaged. Shortly afterwards, Russian troops marched into the village and occupied it for 72 days. It was not until early this week that the Ukrainian army was able to liberate Tsyrkuny and many other areas to the north of the country’s second-largest city, Kharkiv.

It is the Ukrainians’ most successful counter-offensive so far. They are thought to have pushed the invading troops back almost to the Russian border. “The offensive is gaining momentum,” according to the independent American thinktank Institute for the Study of War. “It has forced Russian troops on the defensive and has successfully alleviated artillery pressure on Kharkiv City.”

In the modern city of Kharkiv, home to around 1.5 million residents, the relief has been palpable over the last few days. Restaurants and cafes have reopened. People are walking and riding bikes in the parks, and couples are strolling hand in hand, enjoying the warm spring sunshine. You can still hear the artillery, but it is now many miles away.

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